Günter Grass occupies a unique space in the literary landscape. No other modern writer is as consumed by issues of guilt and responsibility (and the attendant self-loathing), and no other, certainly, is as permanently freaked by the aftermath for Germans of World War II. In a very real sense, Grass owes his career to it. Documenting his country’s ongoing expiation is his raison d’être, and since the publication of The Tim Drum in 1959, Grass has grappled with the war’s philosophical and even literary implications.
In his fine novel Headbirths, Or, The Germans Are Dying Out, for example, Grass suggested that if a physical and political reunification of the Germanys wasn’t possible, a linguistic destruction of the Berlin Walla union at the level of literaturewould have to do, could perhaps even be superior.
But when the Germanys formally reunited, in October 1990, Grass lost his Great Subject. Like Milan Kunderasimilarly preoccupied with communism and, especially, the 1968 Soviet clampdown on Czechoslovakia’s experiment in “socialism with a human face”Grass found himself in a situation in which his very worldview was very nearly irrelevant. He responded with a series of such restless, listless books as My Century, a pocket encyclopedia of the past 100 years, and Too Far Afield, which tried and failed to confront the issue of German reunification head-on.
With Crabwalk, however, Grass has finally found a compelling way to get back on message. The novel is set in a fictionalized, present-day Germany, but its subject matter concerns a historical event: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise-ship-cum-troop-carrier commissioned during the Third Reich. On Jan. 30, 1945, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the vessel, killing more than 9,000 Germans, many of them civilians, many of them children.
In one of the book’s many clever tricks, the narrator, Paul Pokriefke, turns out to be one of the Gustloff’s survivors, in a manner of speaking: He was born at the very moment of the ship’s dramatic demise. “[A]t the actual moment when the Gustloff went down,” Pekriefke explains, “sixty-two minutes after the torpedoes struck, I was the only one to crawl out of my hole.” Paul’s mother also figures prominently in the story, as the relentless driving force behind her son’s reluctant exploration of the
little-known disaster. Paul’s son, Konny, rounds out Grass’ generational study. Neglected by his parents, Konny is raised by his Stalinist grandmother, and the precocious child becomes an enthusiastic documenter of the Gustloff story, eventually developing a Web site dedicated to this forgotten piece of German history.
Crabwalk travels back and forth through time, presenting the lives of the Nazi Party functionary for whom the ship was named, the Jewish resister, David Frankfurter, who shot Gustloff point blank, and Aleksandr Marinesko, captain of the Russian submarine that sank the German ship. Through this world of facts and figures Grass weaves his fiction: Paul narrates his own small place in German history and recounts, in the snapping cadence of a crime novel, the chain of events that finally led to his discovery of his son’s Web site and its revisionist take on the war. For Paul, an absentee father whose career as a mediocre journalist has made him a cynic, the Gustloff disaster is a painfully repressed memory, part of the price Germans paid and must still pay for World War II. For Konny, however, the ship’s sinking is an unacknowledged emblem of German suffering. His Web site aims to rescue the tragedy from the dustbin of history.
Crabwalk’s story is unlikely, intriguing, and sad, but the book also works wonders with form. Grass crafts a reading experience that isappropriately enoughmuch like surfing the Internet. He navigates deftly (and sometimes abruptly) between the facts of the Gustloff’s creation and its destruction, and the tale of Paul’s discovery of Konny’s Nazi-sympathizing exploits. Sure, sure: Like a crab, the story moves sideways and backward to go forward. But it’s the Interneta medium that blurs identity and responsibilitythat gives the novel’s thematics a compelling formal dimension. Not for nothing does Grass have a reputation as one of literature’s most potent experimentalists.
Then, too, the book is a kind of hypertext, with words, ideas, and images serving as vectors to other words, ideas, and images. Indeed, Grass sifts through the wreckage of World War II’s violence and hatred from so many vantage points that you start to get the depressing idea that we’re all guilty somehow, no matter where we stand. Paul’s politicslike Grass’fall on the left, but his barely-there participation in his son’s life seems intimately connected to Konny’s right-wing excavation of the Gustloff disaster. True, Grass never draws explicit lines of culpability between the emasculating postwar shame the father carries and the son’s loathsome (and nearly Oedipal) neo-fascist obsession. Yet that idea animates much of the novel’s storyline.
Paul realizes, too late, that the Web site he’s both repulsed and fascinated by is, in fact, authored by his son. Throughout the early narration, he has followed the raging debate between the site’s author and a message-board poster, both of whom have cast themselves as historical figures in this drama: Konny is “Gustloff,” the other man “Frankfurter.” At one point Konny asks, “‘So tell me, David, is it possible you’re of Jewish descent?’ The response is ambiguous: ‘My dear Wilhelm, if it will give you pleasure or help you in some other way, you can send me to the gas chamber the next time an occasion arises.’” That this heated Internet sparring ends in tragedy comes as no surprise. It’s a meta-history, a replaying of tragic events inside quotation marks. And the consequences, though different, are ultimately as lethal as those of the real Gustloff and Frankfurter’s interaction.
Midway through the novel, in one of his many acerbic asides, Paul observes, “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.” It’s a crude metaphor but totally apt. In the world Grass conjures, nothing is ever discarded, nothing fully eliminated. Even a long-forgotten event like the sinking of the Gustloff can resurface, complicating a country’s perpetual penance by raising awkward questions about a national tragedy. If by all accounts the Gustloff disaster was more devastating than the Titanic’s, after all, why is it not as famous? Is it because we don’t know how to feel about the death of “innocent” World War II-era Germans?
Grass never answers that question”It doesn’t end. Never will it end.” are the book’s last words. And Crabwalk suggests that we’re not really equipped to resolve such queries. Guilt and innocence, perhaps necessarily, are zero-sum concepts. Atonement, on the other hand, is an equation infinitely more complex. CP